A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Something of an Ars Poetica of Shakespeare’s, insofar as it is a play about the power of imagination (Wells 64), A Midsummer Night’s Dream has traditionally been dated 1595ish. Atypically, no single literary or dramatic source exists for this one (like The Tempest and Love’s Labor’s Lost); plotting is usually not considered Shakespeare’s forte. Samuel Pepys called it “The most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw” (qtd. in Goddard, I 77). But that’s not a majority opinion. Although repeating the notion that “Inventing plot was not a Shakespearean gift” (Bloom 149), Harold Bloom nevertheless declares the play Shakespeare’s “first undoubted masterwork, without flaw, and one of his dozen or so plays of overwhelming originality and power” (Bloom 148).
“Midsummer Night” is traditionally June 23/24, a festival of partying and dancing and superstitions regarding enchantment and witchcraft, when midsummer madness, probably associated with the heat, brings about an alternate state of mind “when people are most apt to imagine fantastic experiences” (Asimov 17; cf. Garber 218). There’s a casual throwaway quality in the title — this could be any night in midsummer, and anyone’s dream. A reference to the rites of May suggests May Day, so (as with Twelfth Night) who knows when this is taking place? Suffice it to say that the state of mind suggested is in line with the unrealistic dreamlike action of a play that tells us “that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled” (Goddard, I 74). The moon is mentioned often, appropriate to madness also. The action is framed as a four-day wait for the noble wedding, so the play itself in a kind of diversion.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains Shakespeare’s most direct tribute to Queen Elizabeth (II.i.155ff). Ending in three weddings and a reconciliation, it also may have been an epithalamium presented for a particular wedding; it is more appropriate for a marriage celebration than the other comedies. And the traditional mid-1590s dating of the work matches well with the wedding of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth with the Earl of Derby, one of the very few aristocratic weddings during those middle years of the decade (Clark 613; Ogburn and Ogburn 576, 595, 981; Farina 54). Indeed, their course of true love had not run smoothly. Others have recently insisted on the relevance of the 1594 wedding of Sir Thomas Heneage and Mary Browne Wriothesley when these “rites of May” united two rival families (Anderson 276). A hidden moral application may have been an urging for young Southampton to consider marrying into the Cecil clan (Anderson 276-277), and maybe the thing was tinkered with for the Derby/Vere wedding, with the Earl now inhabiting the Egeus character (Anderson 287). Thus, Lysander/Hermia = Derby and Elizabeth Vere; Demetrius = Southampton (Anderson 287-88); Egeus supporting Demetrius is the poet praising the Fair Youth in the Sonnets (Anderson 288); and Helena is Elizabeth Vernon, with Demetrius still under a love spell at the end of the play that perhaps might still be broken (Anderson 298). Or maybe such occasionality is too quirky and risky: consider the touchy aspects for such a setting. Clark thinks an original version of the play was written in the early 1580s concerning the courtship between Queen Elizabeth and Alençon (Clark 613-626). Like Clark, the elder Ogburns acknowledge a hypothetical December 1584 performance under the name A Pastorall of Phillyda and Choryn (Ogburn and Ogburn 409, 575) but also detect evidence of a “sketchy version” from the mid-1570s (Ogburn and Ogburn 66), partly since May Day and a new moon coincided in 1573 (Ogburn and Ogburn 577).
For Prince Tudor material, see the elder Ogburns (esp. 595, 826).
The Four Levels of Action
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a kind of fugue with four voices” (Goddard, I 77).
1) Theseus and Hippolyta serve as a frame with a realistic, seemingly stable relationship, enveloping the action of court. A dream sense is mentioned but Theseus distrusts tricks of imagination, favoring a commonsense realist attitude. “The Theseus of the Dream appears to have retired from his womanizings into rational respectability, with its attendant moral obtuseness” (Bloom 154).
2) The wooing lovers are weak characters who easily blur together in their sameness: “they are apparently indistinguishable from one another” (Garber 225). They show the transitory inconstancy of love, and physically move us from court to country — a phenomenon that also has a psychological dimension: “wood” = mad. Here irrationality is associated with love. “Hermia has considerable more personality than Helena, while Lysander and Demetrius are interchangeable, a Shakespearean irony that suggests the arbitrariness of young love, from the perspective of everyone except the lover” (Bloom 153). Clark sees the Earl of Oxford and his Countess Anne in Demetrius and Helena (Clark 620) and Thomas Knyvet and Anne Vavasour in Lysander and Hermia (Clark 621), though I’m not sure they have that much particularity. The elder Ogburns pose an Oxford/Anne Cecil to Lysander/Hermia parallel (Ogurn and Ogburn 625). Farina thinks the couples represent William Stanley, Lord Derby and Elizabeth Vere, with Henry Percy, Earl of Nothumberland (whom Egeus/Burghley tried to match with his granddaughter Elizabeth) as Demetrius, and his eventual wife Dorothy Devereux as Helena (Farina 58-59).
3) The fairies influence love with their irrationality. Oberon and Titania’s relationship is in trouble, so everything else goes out of whack. The tragedies agree “that this world of sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the actions of men are affected or overruled” (Goddard, I 74), not just an apology for the amount of coincidence in plots (see The Tempest finally). There’s a sinister side to the fairies. Usually in production, the other fairies are played by children; so you see how horrible that world could be. In the early 1580s at least, “it was the fashion for poets to refer to Elizabeth and her maids as ‘nymphs and fairies'” (Ogburn and Ogburn 580).
4) The “mechanicals” are Athenian laborers — Bottom and company: “‘mechanical’ has the same meaning as the modern ‘mechanic'” (Garber 224).They provide the unintentional burlesque of a classical legend, not in blank verse. Illusion and reality are blurry here too as the mechanicals fear that their audience will be confused and unable to distinguish illusion from reality. The concern for the audience’s susceptibilities is funny and touching. Theseus’ ultrarationalism may be parodied in the literalism of these blokes. And they give us truly delightful bad theatre.
The Romance Genre
The play can be classified as a romance, a genre involving much more than love. Medieval stories of knights and later novels such as The Bride of Lammermoor, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, and Lolita usually include the following features:
- Love serves as much of the motivation (the initial set-up and conflict).
- Characters are often idealized (as types; blurry, weak, young lovers).
- Action takes place as ritualistic quest (Search for Tomorrow, Guiding Light), often obliquely having an erotic intensity. Idyllic wish-fulfilment seems involved.
- Plot transitions are somewhat irrational.
- Nostalgia for a golden age may be felt.
- Setting is usually a fantastic marvellous world, having a childlike quality. (The move from court to country in the play is one of mind too — as shown in the “wood” pun.)
- Atmosphere involves confusion, akin to sleep, madness, a dreamworld.
Indeed, the distinctive feature of romance is its resemblance to the dream state, whether this is manifested in a move out of the civilized world of the court, initiated by a knight dreaming by a well and waking to adventure, or resulting from chemical intoxicants as in one particular scene in The Great Gatsby.
Theseus, ruler of Athens — called, anachronistically, Duke (Asimov 18) as Shakespeare does not seem to know Greece like he knows Italy (Anderson 88), or because Chaucer does it — is anxious for the days to pass so that he can marry Hippolyta, conquered queen of the Amazons. There is a degree of passion indicated, however stately this couple seems, but the conquest background being alluded to only vaguely is weird. Theseus opens the play:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace. Four happy days bring in
Another moon; but O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes! She lingers my desires,
Like to a step-dame, or a dowager,
Long withering out a young man’s revenue.
In other words, waiting around is like when an old lady won’t die so you can finally inherit! Hippolyta assures him that “Four days will quickly steep themselves in night; / Four nights will quickly dream away the time” (I.i.7-8). Inconsistent with later indications, we’re close to the new moon (when the moon is invisible).
Master of Revels Philostrate needs to drum up some entertainment, some merriment to whittle away this period of waiting. “Hippolyta, I woo’d thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries; / But I will wed thee in another key” (I.i.16-18). Music and sound are of thematic importance throughout the play.
With this “more or less stable relationship” (Wells 65) grounding and framing the play, old Egeus interrupts with a problem: both Lysander and Demetrius are wooing his daughter Hermia and he votes for Demetrius even though she wants Lysander. Like Desdemona’s father in Othello, Egeus claims that Lysander “bewitch’d” his daughter (I.i.27). Lysander “hast given her rhymes” (I.i.28) and “love-tokens” (I.i.29): “Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung” (I.i.30). Theseus essentially sides with Egeus:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that compos’d your beauties; yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax,
By him imprinted, and within his power
To leave the figure, or disfigure it.
In other words, Hermia is like an artistic creation, almost a text.
Fortunately, under progressive Athenian law, the woman has choices: Theseus explains that she must either obey, or become a nun “Chaunting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon” (I.i.73), or die. Supposedly Shakespeare includes an indirect compliment to Queen Elizabeth:
Thrice blessed they that master so their blood
To undergo such maiden pilgrimage;
But earthlier happy is the rose distill’d
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
The latter lines “rather diminish its effect” (Barton, Riverside n74f). Yeah. I’d say so. Hermia will so die before yielding her “virgin patent up” (I.i.80); and Demetrius insists that Lysander yield his “title to my certain right” (I.i.92).
Lysander’s first line is a wisecrack: “You have her father’s love, Demetrius, / Let me have Hermia’s; do you marry him” (I.i.93-94). Lysander says Demetrius belongs with Helena, “Nedar’s daughter” (I.i.107). But the law is the law, “Which by no means we may extenuate” (I.i.120), claims Theseus without explanation, after further contentious conversation referencing “estate” (I.i.98), the choice to “prosecute my right” (I.i.105), and “your father’s will” (I.i.118).
Lysander and Hermia are left alone to bemoan that fact that “The course of true love never did run smooth” (I.i.134); even relationships that escape the misery of various obstacles tend to be “short as any dream” (I.i.144). Hermia reasons, “If then true lovers have been ever cross’d, / It stands as an edict in destiny” (I.i.150-151). “It is almost as if Lysander has been watching, or reading, Romeo and Juliet” (Garber 214). The two plan to elope; Lysander has “a widow aunt, a dowager, / Of great revenue” (I.i.157-158) who lives not far from Athens. Hermia swears “By all the vows that ever men have broke” (I.i.175) to meet him in the woods. The scene starts to consist of rhyming couplets.
Hermia informs Helena of the planned elopement. Helena is herself lamenting that Demetrius has spurned her for Hermia’s “fairness”: “Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated [excepted], / The rest I’ll give to be to you translated [transformed]” (I.i.190-191). Lysander confirms Hermia’s report of their elopement tomorrow night “when Phoebe doth behold / Her silver visage in the wat’ry glass” (I.i.209-210). “It is odd, though, that Lysander should refer to the moon lighting up the night, for at the very beginning of the play, Theseus has specifically stated that it is only four nights to the next new moon” (Asimov 21). New frame in a revision?
Lysander and Hermia exit, and Helena privately agonizes in a discourse on love:
Things base and vile, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity.
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.
Thinking Demetrius may come back to her if he knows Hermia is gone, Helena decides to tell him of the couple’s plans.
“Of whatever nationality and historical period the main characters are represented as being, the lower classes are always portrayed as Englishmen of Shakespeare’s own time” (Asimov 22). Here are the “mechanicals” — the local tradesmen. Nick Bottom is a weaver; and a “bottom,” among other things, some rude, is a skein of thread (Asimov 22). Flute is a bellows-maker, appropriate since the sides of a bellows are fluted; Snout is a tinker, and so associated with fixing kettles characterized by their snout or spout; Snug is a joiner (of pieces of wood for furniture); Starveling is a tailor, associated with weakness and unmanliness; and regarding the name Quince for the carpenter, “quines” are blocks of wood used for building (Asimov 22).
Peter Quince, the carpenter, plans an amateur theatrical: “The most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” (I.ii.11-12) (from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IV). Since the story resembles Romeo and Juliet, “Did Shakespeare’s satirical treatment of the Pyramus-Thisbe story get him interested in doing a serious treatment of it? Was the serious treatment already written and was he now poking a little good-natured fun at it?” (Asimov 23). The thing will indeed be a “most lamentable comedy.”
In casting the play, each time Quince names a part, Nick Bottom, the weaver, though cast right away as Pyramus, wants to play it — Thisby, then the lion — “yet my chief humor is for a tyrant. I could play Ercles rarely” (I.ii.28-29) — seemingly a reference to Alençon. Later, regarding wigs, we hear, “Some of your French crowns have no hair at all” (I.ii.97-98), with the pun on hair/heir.
There is serious concern among the troupe that the lion may scare the ladies in the audience out of their wits and all the players would be hanged.
Critically, Bottom is praised as a character. Like Dogberry later and many comic figures in Shakespeare’s plays, he is given to malapropism: using words when he doesn’t know what they mean and bungling them. Indeed, “much of the humor in Shakespeare’s plays rests with the mangling of the English language by the uneducated — something sure to raise patronizing chuckles from the better classes in the audience” (Asimov 24).
Bottom is earthly, ponderous, slow, whereas Puck is will be quick, light, aerial. Bottom is substance, literally the bottom, the ballast. The “bottom” for a weaver is the center of the skein upon which the weaver’s wool is wound; so Bottom is sound at the core (Bloom 150-151). His name can also mean “the last, fundamental, basic” (Garber 233). His good nature is the emotional ballast of the plot. He is the best of all weavers — equally at home anywhere with no discord for him in any of the overlapping realms of the play. Even transformed, his inner self is unfazed (Bloom 150-151). The metamorphosis is a mere externality for him and he is comfortable in all realms shown in this play (Goddard, I 79). “It is another interesting fact that the Veres had long owned the manor-house at Lavenham, which was the center of the weaving industry. Thus Oxford took the part of a weaver. But pre-eminently he was a weaver of dreams” or plays (Ogburn and Ogburn 595).